Development Code chaos? An opinion

By Faith Ross
June 22, 2018 12:40 p.m.

Recently I was asked, “When will the City start purchasing “Open Space” or “Conservation” land?” And “when was the City Commission going to stop approving all these developments? And why were the Commissioners allowing all the trees to be cut down?” After all, I am a City Commissioner’s wife. I should know these things, right?

To answer these questions, some explanation is likely necessary for what is presently happening with development decisions made in the City. Although most of the public believes that the City Commissioners can order things to just “happen” in development, this is only somewhat true. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s all about the legal process.

When a request for a zoning change, or change in density request is made, the Commissioners generally follow the Planning staff’s recommendation. There is a reason to do this. Zoning and density changes require a “Quasi-Judicial” (legal) hearing. “Findings of Fact” must be entered into the record at the hearing to support a Commission’s decision. To add “Findings of Fact” to the record for the City, the Planning staff’s report is entered to defend against a legal challenge. Unless a member of the public or Commissioners provide “opposing facts” to the Findings of Fact in the report, a judge will rule in favor of the applicant (developer) when the staff report supports approval. Under state law, the Commission must state legal reasons for denials (such as not being in compliance with the City’s Comprehensive Plan) to prevail in court.

So the question must be asked, how does the City Commission get the Planning staff to write a report reflecting “facts” which support denial? Since the City’s Charter does not allow the Commission to direct staff, the Commissioners and Planning Board must provide a Land Development Code (LDC) that definitively conserves land and open spaces. The staff must follow code.

Also, to illustrate the woeful deficiencies in our Land Development Code, did you know that in the City’s Land Development Code (LDC) the term “Open Space” is not even defined or even listed in its definitions? In a recent zoning change, a planned unit development (PUD) used the word “civic space” in its documents. The City has no definition in its LDC for “civic space”. Even the State of Florida mandates that Community Development (Planning) Departments provide planning that “Preserves open space and natural lands and provides for public open space and recreation needs.” (FS 163.3177 9b(VI)) And if anyone should take the time to read the City’s Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan, it becomes apparent that enhancing and preserving the natural environment is selectively not represented in the LDC. The City’s Comprehensive Plan offers conservation, but the Land Development Code that implements it does not. As a result, the Planning staff usually recommends approval of density increases or zoning changes with little to no regard for open space or land conservation.

For the Commissioners who wish to honor the needs of the respondents who answered a recent City survey, they may want to initiate code changes that acknowledge a need to provide open space and land conservation. When the survey asked what the focus of the community should be in the next two years, a whopping 90% of the respondents said that the “quality of overall natural environment” was “Essential” or “Very Important”. And when asked how important it was for the City to do strategic planning for specific items, a resounding 82% stated that “Environmental Conservation” was “Essential” or “Very Important” for their overall quality of life. (This may also explain to puzzled Commissioners and staff alike why people get so upset when the trees come down.)

So to answer the not-so-simple questions above, the City Commissioners will need to provide a staff and code that complies with a wish for a real “Community Development” Department, one which preserves our natural environment and requires environmental conservation, not one that just plans where to put the buildings. Citizens may wish to remind their Commissioners and Planning Board members with calls, Emails or Facebook messages. To see changes, it is necessary to write code that does not leave a Planning staff in charge of “interpreting” our Comprehensive Plan. The City needs a responsive Land Development Code that reflects the needs of its citizenry.

Editor’s Note: Faith Ross is a community activist and is married to Commissioner Chip Ross.


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Diana Herman
Diana Herman(@dianah1229)
5 years ago

Maybe it should start in the very early stages–when a builder or developer comes to the TRC. The TRC should let people know we put the island first, not his or her project or development. In addition, very, very large fines when not adhering to ordinances, etc. like the Hilton project. Maybe, just maybe it will be a deterrent–not so easy to develop on Amelia Island, or change zoning anymore.

Lyn Pannone
Lyn Pannone(@lyn-pannone)
5 years ago
Reply to  Diana Herman

Absolutely agree.

Lynda Bell
Lynda Bell(@lyndabell)
5 years ago
Reply to  Diana Herman

Absolutely agree. The fines imposed now are certainly not a deterrent. It would be much better to have a Community Development department and code that requires environmental conservation.

Jason T. Luke
Jason T. Luke (@guest_51672)
5 years ago

We absolutely must stop the over development of this island! I am in the construction business and it might hurt my wallet some but I love my island more … There has got to be a solutio… It’s extremely sad to see it changed by people that have come here from other worlds…. they always say “we love this island, we love this place, it’s just perfect” then they do their best to turn it into the cesspool they were from… It’s sickening .. Absolutely mind boggling that more original citizens haven’t stood up to this irresponsible planning and building…. We need more people like Kate Bailey (Google her if need be, but if you do you’re probably not from here and need to go anyway) things must change before this place is turned into Marco Island…. #getoffmyisland.

Judith Lane
Judith Lane(@judithlaneaol-com)
5 years ago

I am glad that this piece is labeled an opinion, because Ms. Ross’s cheap slam at a hard-working and environmentally conscious CDD was unnecessary. When I began working with CDD, both on the Planning Board and as a pro bono consultant, many years ago, I was pleasantly surprised at their commitment, knowledge, and devotion to Fernandina Beach and environmental sensitivities.

We all moved to this fragile island, making it even more vulnerable. Whose right is it to close the gate? Want to see wanton destruction of green spaces? Look at surrounding communities. They are what the ever-evolving Comp Plan and CDD work to preclude.

Faith Ross
Faith Ross(@faith-ross)
5 years ago
Reply to  Judith Lane

Thank you, Ms. Lane, for your prior service on the Planning Board.

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
5 years ago

I sat in my car on Friday with tears in my eyes watching the slashing of the trees and the scraping of the earth at 14th and Lime. Many people worked very hard to try to stop the project that is going in that area including myself. The so-called “affordable” apartments will be anything but and these wetlands are forever going to be destroyed in short order. It is a FACT that our city Comprehensive Plan and the city’s Land Development Code very unambiguously PROHIBIT the filling of wetlands. And yet, there I sat in my car wondering what more could we have done to try to get our city planners to adhere to the comprehensive plan and LDC? I believe that we are at a tipping point on this island. With an estimated 200 or less undeveloped parcels inside the city limits, we need to agree to take a serious time out to allow for the establishment of the companion code sections that reflect what our citizens declared they want – open spaces, land trust, less encroachment on sensitive wildlife areas and preservation of wetlands. I suggest it is time for a complete moratorium on variance applications via TDC/PAB until these and all other related code items can be worked out and added to our existing plan and code. Watching 14th and Lime, Sadler Road and all the other development debacles, it seems like it is the only way to get a handle on things before it is too late. When these treasured areas are gone, they will be gone for good. What we allow is what will continue.

Tammi Kosack
Tammi Kosack(@tammi-kosack)
5 years ago

The consideration of a moratorium would allow everyone to catch their breath. This could be conditional based upon density or square footage or new construction -without impacting current homeowners or projects in the permit/building pipeline. Great suggestion Betsie.

Teri Donovan
Teri Donovan (@guest_51682)
5 years ago

And why is there no (apparent) concern when the comprehensive plan is NOT followed. I have served on PZ and ZBA’s elsewhere and NEVER have I seen such a total disregard for the previously designed plans. Never have I seen a place where it is so easy to obtain a variance (as evidenced by how many are apparently granted) and never have I seen so much rolling over when guidelines are violated.

Apparently the “plan” is to shoehorn as much crap into a limited space, turn an essentially blind eye to violations, strip the island of green space, take the money and run. And I’m NOT just talking about the city. I’m talking about the county as well. I see the new senior community going in an my blood boils. They tore out MANY more trees than they were given permission to. But hey, it’s just a fine if they do what they want so they went ahead and paid the fines. No orders to replace the huge trees with sufficient young/smaller trees to make up for the volume of trees lost. No orders to scale back their development. No REAL punishment and, therefore no REAL deterrent to them or anyone else. So now we see the act repeated on Sadler. Yes, at least there we saw a stop work order. But, overall, you can’t replace those trees.

Next will be the two large parcels on the Parkway being advertised as available for “intensive commercial development” which will, of course, require the removal of a LARGE number of trees (in fact, I am betting that the 30+ acre plots will be bulldozed because just removing all the vegetation makes development cheaper). And WHY do we need more commercial space when 8th Street is lined with empty businesses? When Sadler has available space? How about a moratorium on new commercial development (including hotels) until what is already developed has been filled?? How about we put some TEETH in the laws so that developers won’t look at their projects and say “heck, it will be more cost effective to go ahead and do what we want and just pay the fines”??

Oh, that would make too much sense.

Lynda Bell
Lynda Bell(@lyndabell)
5 years ago
Reply to  Teri Donovan

I completely agree with you

Chris and Carol
Chris and Carol(@chris-w)
5 years ago

Our city and county governments have turned imposing “fines” into a cottage industry generating money but no positive results in protecting trees. Instead of a deterrent the fines have become a part of doing business for the developers. One way to put some teeth into the codes is to issue stop work orders of at least 30 days for each tree violation! No fines just stoppages. If you’re a developer and you “accidentally” take down 6 trees that you agreed to protect then you can be shut down for 6 months. That will hit them really hard and their “accidents” will stop.